There’s always a reason to celebrate Sibelius. Lovers of his oeuvre, this writer included, never turn down a chance to listen to his music, especially in a live setting. The addition of French works to San Diego Symphony’s offerings this weekend provided a panoply of tastes to the musical palate.

Always ambitious in his programming, San Diego Symphony Music Director Jahja Ling created an inspiring presentation that covered both diverse geography and contrasting musical approaches. From the portrayals of welcoming terrains and the more lavish compositional styles of Saint-Saëns and Ravel’s France to that of the unforgiving northern climes and imposing atmosphere emblematic of Sibelius, each individual work displayed multiple aspects of the orchestra’s virtuosity and versatility.

The waltz dance form originated in the 16th century, and in his operas Charles Gounod demonstrated the French affinity for that idiom. Ravel, inspired by the Viennese flavor and charm of Schubert’s piano waltzes, gave the world some of its most exciting and captivating moments in this genre with his youthful Valses nobles et sentimentales. In the case of his poème chorégraphique, La Valse, originally intended as a ballet and composed after the Great War, Ravel had second thoughts as to the Germanic associations of his original inspiration. Still, captivated by the form, he went ahead with a much less carefree and lighthearted piece than Valses nobles, and La Valse premiered in Paris in 1920. In this work, Ravel tries to evoke a former era, the more ingenuous mid-19th century, when World Wars had not yet surfaced; but ultimately the character of the piece changes dramatically, evolving into a more sober atmosphere.

In the lush melodies (egregiously “borrowed” by Lerner and Lowe in their musical, Gigi), and Bolero-like brashness of the percussion and brass, Maestro Ling faithfully recreated the work’s ethereal initial ambiance, with its seemingly limitless harp glissandos and shimmering upper strings, later shaping contrasts between delicacy and boldness, subtlety and assertiveness, evoking the work’s balletic nature. Add to this the wonder of hearing the piece live, and the program got off to an energizing start.

One would expect Louis Lortie to favor repertoire reflecting his roots. However, the award winning, internationally acclaimed French-Canadian pianist, whose interpretations of Beethoven have been equated with those of great Beethovenian Wilhelm Kempff, remains eclectic in his catalogue of works performed. Lortie’s impressive background as a student of Yvonne Hubert, who studied with the illustrious Alfred Cortot, was in clear evidence in his rendering of Saint-Saëns’ Fifth Piano Concerto, the “Egyptian”. The composer ranks among the most well traveled of his generation (of particular note to San Diego audiences is his visit here to help celebrate the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, which will observe its centennial next year), but his fascination for the exotic cultures of Mediterranean North Africa inspired his foray into the Middle Eastern ambiance he employed in this Fifth Concerto, with its exotic harmonies, Nubian love song, sounds of nocturnal creatures of the Nile, and Aida-like melodic patterns.

Lortie’s artistry embodies elegance, subtlety and refinement. Showing great skill and Gallic flair, he evoked Samson et Dalila sinuousness interpreting Saint-Saëns’ opulent melodies in the first two movements, and executed the dizzying, technically complex third movement pyrotechnics – which would have challenged the virtuosity of a Liszt or a Rachmaninov – with deft precision. He glided through the piece’s lyrical sections like a boat on the mirror-still Nile, and his passagework sparkled like diamonds of sunlight on tropical waters. At times his hands seemed to float above the keyboard; however, that image was but a vision: his phenomenal, assured technique rendered a note-flawless performance, with a distinct connection to the keys. Clearly Lortie was born to perform this French repertoire.

As did Brahms before him, Sibelius, unnerved by the magnitude of his predecessors’ contribution in the symphonic genre, waited until the relatively seasoned age of thirty-four to write his First Symphony. Unlike his much later symphonies, in particular numbers 4, 6 and 7, this work displays much less asceticism and a great deal more expansiveness in its harmonies and melodic lines. From the opening clarinet solo, played with both soul and sensitivity by principal clarinetist Sheryl Renk, the music conjures the rugged, bleak northern atmosphere of Finland, reflecting the composer’s keen identification with nature and its harsh beauty.

The gentler ambiance of the Andante second movement, with its poignant cello solo (few notes, but exquisitely played by principal cellist Yao Zhao) gives way to the pounding, relentless sounds of the desolate, rocky seacoast evoked by the prominent timpani solo (admirably executed  by timpanist Ryan DiLisi) in the third, Scherzo movement. Sibelius allows for unrestrained passion in the second theme of the fourth movement, a precursor to the lush melodies of his Second Symphony and sumptuously played by the strings, only to return to the starkness characteristic of the rest of the work.

Throughout, Ling was able to shift gears between the somber atmosphere preponderant in the bulk of the work, the touching, emotion of the Andante and the buoyant nature of the scherzo with ease, bringing the program to an invigorating close.